PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a last-ditch appeal to far-right voters on Thursday, saying they could be decisive in Sunday's election runoff, after he failed to land a knockout blow in a debate with Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
Wednesday's three-hour televised duel, watched by 17.8 million people out of an electorate of 44.5 million, was billed as Sarkozy's last opportunity to overturn a poll deficit of six to 10 points, drawing on his skills as an aggressive debater.
But the first opinion poll released after the debate suggested Hollande, who remained unflappable and took the battle to a tense and agitated Sarkozy, strengthened his position.
The LH2 survey showed 45 percent of viewers found Hollande more convincing, versus 41 percent for Sarkozy, who would be the 12th euro zone leader to be swept from office since the bloc's debt crisis began in 2009.
"Sarkozy was the favourite for the debate and he failed to win: Hollande took it on points," said Christian Delporte, a political and media analyst. "Hollande had a real challenge - to show that he was presidential material - and he managed it."
Returning to the airwaves after a few hours' sleep in a bid to win over waverers, Sarkozy appealed directly to the nearly one-fifth of voters who backed the hard right National Front in the first round on April 22.
He urged them not follow the example of party candidate Marine Le Pen, who said she would cast a blank vote.
"An election has never been this close. The opinion polls are lying," Sarkozy told RTL radio. "If you want the policies of Francois Hollande - the systematic legalisation of illegal immigrants, the right to vote for immigrants - go ahead and abstain."
To save his political skin on Sunday, Sarkozy needs to accomplish a near-impossible balancing act by convincing some 80 percent of Le Pen's voters and attracting the lion's share of supporters of Francois Bayrou, a centrist who came fifth in the first round with 9.1 percent of the vote.
Sarkozy reminded backers of Bayrou's Democratic Movement that he had promised to write a balanced budget rule into the Constitution, while Hollande had refused. Bayrou, who made fiscal responsibility central to his campaign, was due to announce his second-round choice at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT).
SPARRING OVER EUROPE
French media mostly agreed that Hollande, 57, who used flashes of wit to unbalance his pugnacious rival, remains on track to become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
"Hollande still favourite after the debate," Le Monde wrote on its front page. Even right-wing Le Figaro newspaper noted that, since every euro zone leader to seek re-election since 2008 had lost, Sarkozy faced an uphill battle.
Hollande, 57, was confident and relaxed in the early exchanges of Wednesday's contest, pledging to be "the president of unity" accusing Sarkozy of dividing the French people.
He accused Sarkozy, also 57, of was using the global economic crisis to break promises made when he won power in 2007 to bring unemployment down to 5 percent. "With you it's very simple: it's never your fault," Hollande said.
Sarkozy, stressing the inexperience of a rival who has never been a minister, repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to swamp his adversary.
Deriding Hollande's pledge to be a "normal president", Sarkozy said: "Your normality is not up to the challenge."
Markets, however, appeared unfazed at the prospect of a win by Hollande, who has pledged to raise taxes on large corporations and hike the marginal tax rates for top earners to 75 percent. The yield on 10-year French bonds held steady below 3 percent at an auction on Thursday, while Paris' CAC stock index was slightly lower, in line with most of Europe. .FCHI
Hollande has soothed investors' concerns in recent weeks by moderating his call for the renegotiation of a German-inspired European budget discipline treaty, which many had feared would derail efforts to deal with euro zone crisis. He said he would balance France's budget by 2017, just a year later than Sarkozy.
"Supposing Francois Hollande wins the election on Sunday, we do not expect a major policy shift with respect to the fiscal stance in France," JP Morgan economist Raphael Brun-Aguerre said.
Europe was one of the main subjects of Wednesday's debate, as well as the sickly economy, high unemployment, nuclear power and immigration.
"The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece," Sarkozy said, declaring that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had saved Greece from an economic wipeout and avoided the collapse of the euro currency.
"Europe has got over it," Sarkozy said of the crisis.
Hollande, who says he wants to defend millions of Europeans at threat from government cutbacks, shot back: "Europe has not got over it. Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalised austerity. That's what I don't want."
Sarkozy, being punished in part for his brash manner, is the most unpopular president to run for re-election and the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote.
The streets of Paris were unusually deserted on Wednesday night as many people stayed home to watch the debate, although some chose to follow the clash at their local cafe.
"I don't think this is going to change the way anyone votes. People have already made up their minds," said Jacques Dufoix, 36, a computer engineer, watching in a Paris sports bar.
Only 9 percent of voters said the debate would be decisive for their choice, according to Dominique Reynie of the Fondapol think tank. He cautioned that if Sarkozy continued to gnaw away at Hollande's poll lead as he has in recent days, it was impossible to count him out. (1 = 0.7603 euros)
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Alexandria Sage, John Irish, Pauline Mevel, Emmanuel Jarry and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)